Remembering Debbie Friedman, for kids – local author writes a children’s-book tribute to Debbie Friedman | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Remembering Debbie Friedman, for kids – local author writes a children’s-book tribute to Debbie Friedman  


The legend of Debbie Friedman, the late composer and performer of contemporary Jewish music, was made in part at a pair of summer camps in Wisconsin. Now, a Wisconsin author has written an illustrated children’s book, about Friedman’s life.  

The book is “A Place to Belong: Debbie Friedman Sings Her Way Home,” and it was authored by Milwaukee’s Debra Lakritz.  

Illustrated by Julia Castano and published by Apples & Honey Press, the book follows Friedman through her formative years. Those travels took her from her birthplace of Utica, New York, to St. Paul, Minnesota. Everywhere she goes, Friedman is surrounded by Jewish prayers, many of which she would later turn into melodies that are sung in synagogues and campfires around the world.  

It leads up to a 16-year-old Friedman getting a job as a babysitter at an overnight camp in 1967, which Lakritz identified as Herzl Camp in Webster, Wisconsin, a camp that about a decade earlier had been the summer home of a young singer and guitarist from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman. At Herzl, as the book shows, young Debbie was inspired by the folk songs she heard around the campfire and learned to play guitar. This itself inspired her career as a song leader and eventually an historically important songwriter.  

Friedman later attended another Jewish camp in Wisconsin, Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in Oconomowoc, where for many years she hosted the Hava Nashira song leading workshop.  

A mother of five and the author of several previous books, Lakritz worked on and off on the Friedman book for about six years.  

“I came to this because… I’ve always loved Debbie Friedman’s music. I also used to sing and play guitar, and so it was naturally just a topic that resonated for me. When I saw that there really hadn’t been a book written about her… I decided the time was really right for that kind of a story. The thought really began with that, the love of her music.”  

Lakritz worked with Friedman’s surviving family, including a first cousin of the late singer who lives in Milwaukee, who provided photos and other family mementos. Lakritz also spent time with Friedman’s sister Cheryl, who manages Debbie’s estate, and who the author described as “very kind and gracious,” and had some phone conversations with Debbie’s mother Frida, prior to Frida’s death.  

The author drew on the work of academic Judah Cohen, who has written extensively on the significance of Friedman’s work, and also found others with stories to tell about Friedman.  

“Being a Midwestern Jew, we had so many connections, so many people in common,” Lakritz said, likening it to “Jewish geography on steroids.”  

Friedman lived in New York City for a time, before spending her final years in Southern California. The “place to belong,” the book ultimately finds, is Debbie introducing her original melodies to audiences.  

“As they sing, the teens put their arms around one another,” the book says of that moment. “For the first time, the prayer belongs to them, not to a cantor or choir. It’s as if light suddenly shines on a road that Debbie never knew existed.” 

Debbie Friedman died at age 59 in 2011. The book concludes with “now Debbie’s music belongs to the world. And she does too.” 

“A Place to Belong: Debbie Friedman Sings Her Way Home” is set to arrive in bookstores this month. 

 * * *

How to go 

What: Book launch event for “A Place to Belong: Debbie Friedman Sings Her Way Home,” with author Deborah Lakritz. 

Where: Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave, Milwaukee 

When: Wednesday, Dec. 7, 6:30 p.m. 

Cost: Free